“We cut the statue below the knees within minutes,” a Hungarian student said, recalling the exciting scene in October 1956 at Varosliget, Budapest’s version of Central Park, where 200,000 Hungarian rebels shouted “Russians go home!” while felling Joseph Stalin’s 25-meter idol to the ground.
The bronze sculpture’s collapse, the disembodiment of its head and the mutilation of its body memorably sparked the bloody anti-Soviet uprising that shook the world.
While they were at it, the revolutionaries made two statements about statues that Americans must consider as their president spars with iconoclasts. The first statement was that statues matter.
Yes, some statues don’t matter. The Sphinx in Giza, for instance, doesn’t matter, as its human identity is not clear even to archeologists, and its gaze is as hollow as the idiotic expressions of Easter Island’s monoliths, which make it difficult for us to relate to them and their mysterious artists.
Most statues, however, do matter, especially the elevated, central and shining ones, like Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Shooting 52 meters into the air at one of the world’s busiest places, the pillar and the statue adorning it powerfully convey the British nation’s admiration for the fallen hero of Napoleon’s naval defeat. It might not be clear whether England still “expects that every man will do his duty,” as Adm. Horatio Nelson claimed, or how many Brits are still prepared to act based on this assumption, as he was, but the statue is witness that most Brits still respect an admiral who fought for his country bravely, sacrificially and victoriously.
The same attitude is fostered by Russia’s Motherland Calls, a 52-meter woman – the world’s tallest feminine structure – waving skyward a 33-meter sword while overlooking today’s Volgograd. Like Nelson’s Column, it salutes the Battle of Stalingrad’s universally admired patriots, and while at it, reflects, when compared with Nelson’s Column, the difference between Russian enthusiasm and British understatement.
Yet monuments don’t always arouse admiration and in fact might spark wrath and absorb violence, which was the Hungarian scene’s second lesson.
JEWS FEEL uncomfortable beneath the mounted Bohdan Khmelnytsky in Kiev’s Sophia Square, which commemorates the Ukrainian warrior’s arrival there in 1648 after defeating the Polish army, but disregards his Cossacks’ simultaneous massacres of thousands of Jews.
The Jewish nation does not demand the statue’s removal, mainly because such a move would be impractical. But some monuments that became moral eyesores inspired inventive solutions.
That, for instance, is what happened with Rome’s Colossus of Nero, a 30-meter-tall chunk of bronze with which the deranged emperor hoped to immortalize himself. Reluctant to destroy it – but also refusing to glorify the man who executed, among others, his mother and wife – his successors redefined the colossus as a monument to the sun god Sol by adding to its head a crown of sun rays.
A more crude solution to a similar dilemma was deployed in Prague’s Letna Park in 1962 when a massive granite monument to the newly disgraced Stalin was blasted with 800 kilograms of dynamite. Violent as that solution was, it was mild compared with China’s massacre in 1989 of the students who gathered around the Goddess of Democracy they had planted in the middle of Tiananmen Square.
Statues, in short, can provoke as much as they can inspire, and they can also be dangerous for one’s health – and not only one’s health, but also that of an entire nation. That is what is now at stake in the US.
I FIRST learned of Robert E. Lee’s many monuments in the US in Prof. Arthur Goren’s American history class at Hebrew University. There was a quest for appeasement after the Civil War, he explained, and the victors sought ways to salvage their enemies’ honor.
“They thus added Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to the pantheon of national heroes,” said Goren, with some enthusiasm for the vision and generosity that this attitude required.
Lee’s personal promotion of the spirit of appeasement, by visiting his former rival, Ulysses S. Grant in the White House, added legitimacy to the monuments, which were interpreted as hailing not the South’s racism, but the North’s benevolence. Were he wise and enlightened, Donald Trump would have mentioned this when he spoke against removing Lee’s monument. But Trump is both unwise and ignorant, and thus ignored the spirit of national appeasement that Lee’s monuments were meant to foster.
Coupled with his revolting response to the ramming attack and antisemitic rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, it is clear that before it removes any of its monuments, America must first remove its president.
This does not contradict the fact that the monuments themselves pose a dilemma: Where will it stop? What will happen when, say, American Muslims demand the removal of a Lincoln statue from their town because as a human image it hurts their religious feelings?
Fortunately, this is one problem we Israelis don’t have. The sword-waving Elijah’s idol by the Carmelite Monastery, the self-defense pioneer Alexander Seid’s mounted statue overlooking the Jezreel Valley and Warsaw Ghetto hero Mordechai Anielewicz’s lean image holding a grenade at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai are off-the-beaten-path exceptions to the rule, which is that Israel does not create monuments to its leaders.
Evidently inspired by Judaism’s ancient clash with idolatry, the closest we come to such commemoration is the soccer-ball sized bust of our founding father at the entrance to Ben-Gurion Airport.
Had Americans adopted this attitude in the first place, they would not have faced the dilemma their many political and military monuments now pose. But that attitude was out of the question, since millions of Americans – some would say American culture itself, and also the entire American civilization – have a weakness for idols.
That’s how they got Trump.